All entries for Sunday 10 May 2009

May 10, 2009

The Szekeres Chronicles: Search Behaviour

Follow-up to The Szekeres Chronicles: Cheap Flights from The Missing N

Sorry if this posts seems a little dry. If you really couldn't care less about Web Analytics, skip to the Afterthought to get a very brief resume of the post.

Back to our quote:

"Cheap flights" (mentioned earlier) has been steadily decreasing since 2004, because people have had less money to go on holidays I presume [...]

It turns out the true reason for the decrease is of a totally different nature: the real changes are happening in the very search behaviour of internet users. Two things to understand here:

First, searches are becoming more and more brand-orientated. Maybe you felt that the service was remarkable last time you traveled to Sarajevo with Bosna Air, or maybe you have to go to Vanuatu but you boycott Vanuatu Air by principle. So you search for "Bosna Air plane tickets", or "cheap flights Vanair", respectively. This increase in specific brand-name searches translates into a decrease in plain "cheap flights" searches, hence the decrease.

There is, however, a second and more profound reason for the decrease, and it is this one I want to spend the most time on. The basic idea, is that people are becoming more clever in their way of using search engines and so they now start using more and more keywords in order to find exactly what they are looking for. In particular, people are no longer just searching for "cheap flights", but more specific phrases such as "cheap flights from Sarajevo to Vanuatu" or "plane tickets direct flight from New Zealand to Belgium". Again, the more people start searching for phrases like these, the more the searches for "cheap flights" will decrease, albeit slowly.

Now, with Google Trends (or Google Insight, as its successor is called), it is impossible to infer this kind of behaviour from the a few graphs. There are, however, other tools developed by Google that allow users to explore these kind of trends, for instance Google Adwords Keyword Tool. Doing so takes time and patience, but there are people out there willing to undertake such tasks for personal pleasure or profit. Thus, intriguing data is collected:

Longer search terms are becoming more popular 

Over the last year or so, one- and two-word searches have steadily decreased, and symmetrically, search phrases in more than three words have seen a significant increase. I even suspect that this process has been going on for some years now. This confirms our explanation of the Cheap-Flights decrease and generalises it: poeple are searching for longer and longer key phrases.

One last question is: why is this happening? As before, a reason could be that people are, in general, becoming better at using search engines, and therefore use more keywords to find specifically what they are searching for. Instead of settling with "wipeout pulse" in order to find information about the game in question, youngsters now search for "wipeout pulse list all tracks" or something similar; and likewise, users are generally being more specific when searching.

This explanation sounds reasonable enough, and it is likely to be the main, if not the only reason, for the increase in long search phrases. Yet, when I think back to the times when I've seen the "more mature generation"(old people) using Google and other search engines, something springs to my mind. Maybe people aren't becoming more creative and ingenious in their search behaviour... maybe, on the contrary, this is a sign of "search stupidity". Who hasn't seen an adult using an abindance of words like "the", "a", "and", etc. in a Google search? What I'm trying to say here, is that anyone with a respectable knowledge of searches, knows that there are certain trivial words you can leave out in a search. With more and more "grandparents" being initiated to the Web, these trivial words could potentially be included more often in searches. In the same way, one could imagine that the search phrases made by younger people could start to contain more and more unnecessary words as well, due to carelessness for example. All this may sound unlikely, but I don't see any reason to entirely exclude the possibility. In any case, I quite fancy the idea of average search behaviour turning into moronic keyword typing. Charming image.


To sum up: People are, on average, using more and more words in their search queries. This is probably a "good" thing, but who knows, maybe it isn't.

Feel free to comment if you disagree with anything I've written, or if I've written anything that is just plain wrong.

There's more to the Szekeres Chronicles, but I'll keep that for some other time. The lack of comments makes me feel like I'm the only one enjoying this. The next couple of posts should be more light-hearted and un-serious.

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